Walton County sued over inspection fees in class action complaint

A LAWSUIT filed in March 2020 involves inspections for building permit applications, contending that some building permit applicants have been required by Walton County to “pay twice” for building code inspection services. (iStock photo)

By DOTTY NIST

A court has been asked to require Walton County to reduce fees for building code inspection services charged to property owners, contractors, and other building permit applicants who have hired a private provider for these services in place of obtaining inspection services from the building official.

According to the legal complaint filed on March 23 in Walton County Circuit Court, the county has not reduced its permitting fees to account for cost savings to the county when building permit applicants hire these private providers for inspection services. Applicants in this situation have been “essentially forced to pay twice for building code inspection services,” the complaint alleges.

Blackstone Construction of the Emerald Coast, L.L.C., filed the lawsuit on behalf of the company itself and “a class of individuals and entities who are similarly situated.”

Construction work requiring a building permit also requires plans and inspections to ensure that the work complies with the Florida Building Code. The building code requires certain inspections, among those building, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and gas inspections.

In 2002, in order to address issues related to building code development and administration, the Florida Legislature created Section 553.791, F.S., which amended laws related to the building code. The section provided for private providers to be hired by building permit applicants under some conditions to perform building inspections and plans reviews in lieu of local building officials.

According to the statute section, a local building official is entitled to audit a private provider in order to ensure that the provider has reviewed the building plans and is performing the inspections as required. These audits are limited to four per month or four times in a calendar unless the building condition is deemed an immediate threat to public safety and welfare.

The statute section states that the intent of the legislation is for building permit applicants (also referred to as fee owners or contractors) to pay reduced fees when a private contractor is hired for an inspection or plans review.

Section 553.791 states, “A local jurisdiction must calculate the cost savings to the local enforcement agency, based on a fee owner or contractor hiring a private provider to perform plans reviews and building inspections in lieu of the local building official, and reduce the fees accordingly. The local jurisdiction may not charge fees for building inspections if the fee owner or contractor hires a private provider; however, the local jurisdiction may charge a reasonable administrative fee.”

According to the lawsuit, “Despite the clear legislative mandate, Walton County has failed to reduce its permitting fees according to its cost savings, causing substantial damages to property owners and contractors by charging and collecting excessive fees in violation of the law.”

Sought through the lawsuit is certification by the court of a “class of individuals and entities who are similar situated,” which would provide for these individuals and entities to join in the lawsuit as “class members” rather than filing separate suits. The lawsuit estimates that the approximate number of class members would be over 1,000.

Requests to the court include that the county be directed to calculate the cost savings associated with building permit applicants hiring private providers for inspections, to maintain a “reasonable schedule of fees for enforcing the Florida Building Code,” to reduce fees for applicants who hire a private provider for inspection in lieu of the local building official providing inspection, and to refrain from charging services related to building permitting services that are not provided by the county. 

Also requested from the court is an order for building permit applicants to be reimbursed “for the amount of fees that they have paid since July 1, 2017 which exceed the amount that the Defendant (Walton County) was legally authorized to charge.”

There has been no responsive filing by Walton County at this time, and no court date has been set.